When Entrepreneurs Sacrifice Too Much
How much would you give up to start a company? A car? Your own apartment or house? Heat? From prized possessions like a classic motorcycle to priceless things like time with friends and family, it’s clear that many entrepreneurs are willing to make extreme sacrifices.For these intrepid bootstrappers, however, these entrepreneurial sacrifices can also affect family members.
As with many companies founded by passionate entrepreneurs, Stonyfield Farm’s road to becoming one of the top U.S. sellers of organic yogurt was paved with personal sacrifices—in this case, it included giving up some creature comforts and adopting a spartan lifestyle, such as living in a wood-heated New Hampshire farmhouse (pictured above).
The wife of Stonyfield Farm co-founder Gary Hirshberg, Meg Hirshberg drew on these early experiences when writing “For Better or For Work: A Survival Guide for Entrepreneurs and Their Families.”
When reflecting on aspects of their 27-year marriage, Meg Hirshberg describes her journey as the passenger along for the ride: “The entrepreneur is the driver; the spouse, having no control, sways nauseatingly with all the curves the business takes. With respect to the business, the spouse inevitably confronts the question: ‘Are you in or are you out?‘ That question is usually not verbalized but it hangs in the air. And if the spouse isn’t in, the relationship will suffer.”
Meg Hirshberg details some of the sacrifices that she made along the way:
LINKEDIN: It took nine years for Stonyfield Farm to have a profitable year. As you look back on those nine years, what were some of the biggest sacrifices that you made?
MEG HIRSHBERG: I’d have to say we didn’t look at it as a sacrifice, but rather as a set of choices we were presented with. Entrepreneurs do whatever it takes to try to make the business work. In our case, we lived in a pretty primitive environment—a freezing wood-heated farmhouse—and we shared the space with the business so we had no privacy. Of course we would have preferred our own home, but we couldn’t afford it, and we had to stay near the yogurt factory. Virtually all startups involve the sacrifice of financial security (and of free time), but in the case of home-based businesses like ours, you also sacrifice privacy.
The Hirshberg Family, 2009
LINKEDIN: Sacrificing time with family and friends often comes up as one of the bigger things that entrepreneurs give up. What would you say to someone who might resent the frequent absences (both emotional and physical) of the entrepreneur? Any tips on what you or Gary would have done differently in hindsight?
MEG HIRSHBERG: The extreme demands on the entrepreneur can make the spouse feel ignored, neglected, and low on the priority list. The entrepreneur needs to show the spouse that s/he is important. It really doesn’t take much—often it comes down to genuinely inquiring about the spouse’s day (since businesses can suck up all the conversational oxygen) or taking a little tech-free time with the spouse on a regular basis. Even a walk down the block (sans smartphone) can make the couple feel connected.
As with most startups, the business demanded that Gary be absent a lot (he was on the road seeing buyers, etc…) But on top of this, he also had a lot of volunteer commitments. I think that’s one thing he would have done differently—pared down on any outside commitments that were not essential to the business, at least during the crazy startup years.
LINKEDIN: Any other lessons you’d like to pass along?
MEG HIRSHBERG: The most important thing for couples living the startup life is to make every effort to communicate and stay in touch. That’s of course true of any couple, but a business can expand relationship fault lines into yawning chasms.